Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 10

A bicycle nearly rammed the side of the car in which I was a passenger, and the driver, Ajay Virmani, my host in Pondicherry, chuckled at my flinching reaction and beeped his horn, almost as an afterthought.
"Aren't there any stop signs here?" I asked. "These four-way intersection – no lights, no signs, how do you keep from being killed?"
"We simply sound the horn and keep watch. And we trust in God."

We entered a wide boulevard that dead-ended at the ocean. Ajay, a thin, suave Bengali bachelor in his early 40s, parked the car on the sidewalk in front of the Rendezvous restaurant. There were no other cars on the street for blocks. I wondered about parking on the sidewalk when the entire street was free. "We just park anywhere," Ajay said. "There is never any problem."
We ate sausages and bacon and omelets with mushrooms and French fries and drank strong, black coffee – not common fare in southern India – and then he took me to his house, where I'd be staying for the better part of a week.

My room was on the third floor, as high as just about any building in Pondy, and too high for the lazy mosquitoes to reach, Ajay told me. It was a bare room – just a mattress on the floor and a couple of lawn chairs, and an enormous framed photo of an old woman. Coming up from the first floor, I had noticed photos all through the house of the same woman and some guru. I had asked Ajay who she was; he said she was the mother. "Your mother?" I asked. "No, THE Mother," he responded.

When he left me to rest and he to return to his office, I opened my Footloose guidebook to research the old woman and the guru. Pondicherry is home to a famous ashram, and all those posters around Ajay's house had something to do with this quasi-religion.
"Ashram" means "retreat," and there are many in India. The one in Pondicherry was founded by Sri Aurobindo, the seer, poet and Indian nationalist who developed a philosophy of salvation through spiritual evolution. Born Aurobindo Ghose in Calcutta in 1872, he was educated in Christian schools and at Cambridge, but returned to India in 1892 and became interested in native culture, yoga, Indian languages and classical Sanskrit.
Aurobindo bcame a revolutionary, bent on helping India free itself from the British raj. The British jailed him in 1908, and two years later he fled to refuge in French-held Pondicherry. He devoted the rest of his life there to his philosophy, founding an ashram that would be a cultural center for spiritual development, attracting people from all over the world.

Aurobindo wrote volume after volume of nearly incomprehensible explanation of his philosophy, which eventually attracted throngs of hippies to the ashram, not for the logic of his thought, but for the romance. But long before the beaded and barefoot Westerners trooped into Pondy, someone else came to town who would change the ashram to something Aurobindo could never have conceived in his most far-out dreams: The Mother.

1 comment:

Brant said...

I remember driving - or, more accurately, being driven - on the streets of New Delhi and wondering how it was possible that everyone in the country hadn't already been killed in horrific traffic accidents. They had these traffic circles where absolutely no one yielded to anyone else. It was like being on the bumper cars ride at Kennywood. Yet, somehow, they seemed to survive.